Somewhere in Labour headquarters, someone should be poring over Michael Ashcroft’s polling with a thoughtful look. Not because pessimism should be the default setting for an election strategist, but because, although Ashcroft’s most recent polling highlights many strategic problems for the Conservative party, the detail isn’t entirely reassuring for the Labour party either.
Labour supporters will be pleased to hear Ashcroft’s conclusion that, to win an overall majority, the Tories need ‘the votes of everyone who supported them last time, plus practically everyone who is even prepared to think about doing so next time.’ That sounds like a tall order, and, as these voters to are a mix of dissatisfied Ukip voters, unsure former Labour and Liberal Democrat voters and people who find the whole business of politics near irrelevant to their lives, it is a tall order.
What’s more, while the Tories are more trusted on the economy, on leadership, on tough decisions and as individual politicians, Labour is more in touch, more likely to share your values, make your family better off, and more likely to have our hearts in the right place (I sometimes wonder if many voters take this question rather literally).
It’s this which means Labour is ‘obstinately ahead’ and which is causing frustration among Tory strategists.
So can we relax a little bit, sure that our values and our focus on the cost of living will make it impossible for the Tories to progress? I don’t think so.
Dig into the details of the Ashcroft polling, and you can see there is a slice of Labour support, perhaps 10 per cent to a fifth of our total support which might be vulnerable to Tory messages, if the Tories can rid themselves of their ‘for the few’ image as the economy recovers. This group could easily be the difference between victory and defeat.
Take a look at what current Labour supporters say when asked if Labour or the Tories are better on certain key issues:
On some pretty major issues, such as welfare and the deficit, a substantial chunk of Labour supporters rate the Tories as better than Labour. Other than on the NHS, it hard to see many Tory voters returning this favour. Now, caution is needed here. It would be too easy to look at these numbers and assume the worst. It’s crucial to remember that these people are still voting Labour, and they’re doing so for a reason.
Labour’s supporters overwhelmingly rate the party as the best for fairness, for making their family better off, on the NHS and schools. It would be a huge mistake to ignore those strengths, or to pretend they are insignificant. They’re not. They’re vital. But if you were looking for vulnerabilities among Labour support, these are some obvious ones.
Another area to keep an eye on is views on the party leaders. While only one per cent of Tory voters think Ed Miliband would make the best prime minister, 14 per cent of today’s Labour voters think David Cameron would make the best prime minister.
Further, while eight per cent of Labour voters say they’re satisfied with Cameron as prime minister, and another 13 per cent say that, though they’re not, they’d prefer him in No 10 to Labour’s leader.
While some of this is no doubt simply due to familiarity, Cameron comfortably outperforms his party among almost all voter groups, which suggests that the Tories would be well advised to make the general election as personal as possible.
Just as importantly as Labour’s more vulnerable voters, those prime minister preferences suggest it may be easier for the Tories to expand their support over the coming year than many currently assume.
Here are the views of Liberal Democrat (first table below) and Ukip voters (second table below) on who they think is best on some key issues.
Now, among current Liberal Democrats, Labour is ahead on education and the NHS, and crucially on the cost of living (C 14, L 21), but the sense is that they tend to be more supportive of the Tories than Labour if forced to choose. Again, among the remaining Liberal Democrats, there are some pretty big Tory leads.
Indeed, even when offered the choice of Nick Clegg, 37 per cent of current Liberal Democrat voters still said Cameron would make the best prime minister. Twelve per cent said Ed Miliband.
Interestingly, 2010 Liberal Democrats were equally divided between Miliband and Cameron, which shows that most Labour sympathetic Liberal Democrats have defected to us already.
Among Ukip voters, the figures are even starker – only when it comes to the NHS, being on your side and understanding your problems do the Conservatives fail to score huge majorities over Labour.
Naturally, Ukip supporters are dismissive of David Cameron’s party for meaningful and real issues. They think he’s out of touch, unconcerned with their priorities and not interested in their lives. However, it is at least possible to see how such voters could be squeezed, especially as fully 60 per cent of current Ukip supporters say, while they’re dissatisfied with Cameron, they prefer him to the Labour leader, and Cameron enjoys a three-to-one lead as best prime minister among Ukip voters.
The Tories face huge challenges. That much is clear. The attacks on them as being out of touch, uninterested in the lives of ordinary people, and standing for the few not the many reverberate with voters. They can’t ignore those weaknesses if they want to win. Equally, though, Labour should be aware that there are voters who have concerns about us too. Nothing is yet settled.
Photo: Louisa Thomson
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